Repeating “Fast Radio Bursts” Detected in Another Galaxy — Probably Not Aliens, Interesting Anyway

The Green Bank Radio Telescope (NRAO)

A radio astronomy project intended to find signals from intelligent aliens has announced the intriguing detections of “repeating” fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a single source in a galaxy three billion light-years distant. This is definitely an exciting development, but probably not for the reasons you think.

The ambitious $100 million Breakthrough Listen project aims to scan a million stars in our galaxy and dozens of nearby galaxies across radio frequencies and visible light in hopes of discovering a bona fide artificial signal that could be attributed to an advanced alien civilization. But in its quest, Breakthrough Listen has studied the signals emanating from FRB 121102 — and recorded 15 bursts — to better understand what might be causing it.

FRBs remain a mystery. First detected by the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, these very brief bursts of radio emissions seemed to erupt from random locations in the sky. But the same location never produced another FRB, making these bizarre events very difficult to understand and impossible to track.

Hypotheses ranged from powerful bursts of energy from supernovae to active galactic nuclei to (you guessed it) aliens, but until FRB 121102 repeated itself in 2015, several of these hypotheses could be ruled out. Supernovae, after all, only have to happen once — this FRB source is repeating, possibly hinting at a periodic energetic phenomenon we don’t yet understand. Also, because FRB 121102 is a repeater, in 2016 astronomers could trace back the location of its source to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth.

Now we ponder the question: What in the universe generates powerful short bursts of radio emissions from inside a dwarf galaxy, repeatedly?

Using the Green Bank Telescope in the West Virginia, scientists of Breakthrough Listen recorded 400 TB of data over a five hour period on Aug. 26. In these data, 15 FRBs were recorded across the 4 to 8 GHz radio frequency band. The researchers noted the characteristic frequency dispersion of these FRBs, caused by the signal traveling through gas between us and the source.

Now that we have dedicated and extremely detailed measurements of this set of FRBs, astrophysicists can get to work trying to understand what natural phenomenon is generating these bursts. This is the story so far, but as we’re talking radio emissions, mysteries and a SETI project, aliens are never far away…

Probably Not Aliens

It may be exciting to talk about the possibility of aliens generating this signal — as a means of communication or, possibly, transportation via beamed energy — but that avenue of speculation is just that: speculation. But to speculate is understandable. FRBs are very mysterious and, so far, astrophysicists don’t have a solid answer.

But this mystery isn’t without precedent.

In 1967, astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish detected strange radio pulses emanating from a point in the sky during a quasar survey to study interplanetary scintillation (IPS). The mysterious pulses had an unnaturally precise period of 1.33 seconds. At the time, nothing like it had been recorded and the researchers were having a hard time explaining the observations. But in the back of their minds, they speculated that, however unlikely, the signal might be produced by an alien intelligence.

During a dinner speech in 1977, Bell Burnell recalled the conundrum they faced:

“We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem – if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe how does one announce the results responsibly? Who does one tell first? We did not solve the problem that afternoon, and I went home that evening very cross here was I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us.”

This first source was nicknamed “LGM-1” (as in “Little Green Men-1”), but far from being an artificial source, the duo had actually identified the first pulsar — a rapidly-spinning, highly magnetized neutron star that generates powerful emissions from its precessing magnetic poles as it rotates.

This is how science works: An interesting signal is detected and theories are formulated as to how that signal could have been generated.

In the case of LGM-1, it was caused by an as-yet-to-be understood phenomenon involving a rapidly-spinning stellar corpse. In the case of FRB 121102, it is most likely an equally as compelling phenomenon, only vastly more powerful.

The least likely explanation of FRB 121102 makes a LOT of assumptions, namely: aliens that have become so incredibly technologically advanced (think type II or even type III on the Kardashev Scale) that they can fire a (presumably) narrow beam directly at us through intergalactic space over and over again (to explain the repeated FRB detections) — the odds of which would be vanishingly low — unless the signal is omnidirectional, so they’d need to access way more energy to make this happen. Another assumption could be that intelligent, technologically advanced civilizations are common, so it was only a matter of time before we saw a signal like FRB 121102.

Or it could be a supermassive black hole (say) doing something very energetic that science can’t yet explain.

Occam’s razor suggests the latter might be more reasonable.

This isn’t to say aliens don’t exist or that intelligent aliens aren’t transmitting radio signals, it just means the real cause of this particular FRB repeater is being generated by a known phenomenon doing something unexpected, or a new (and potentially more exciting) phenomenon that’s doing something exotic and new. It doesn’t always have to be aliens.



Could Alien Spacecraft Propulsion Explain the Cosmic Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts?

It’s an “out there” hypothesis, but radiation from alien spacecraft zooming around space could account for the strange bursts of radio waves coming randomly from the deep cosmos.

M. Weiss/CfA

Powerful bursts of radio waves have been observed at random all over the sky and astronomers are having a hard time figuring out what the heck could be causing them. Many natural phenomena have been put forward as candidates — from massive stellar explosions to neutron star collisions — but none seem to fit the bill. It’s a mystery in its purest sense.

Pulling the alien card will likely raise some eyebrows in some academic circles, but if these so-called fast radio bursts (FRBs for short) end up lacking a satisfactory explanation, according to Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), an artificial source (e.g. advanced extraterrestrial intelligence) could become the prime suspect.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” said Loeb in a statement. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

FRBs are super weird. First detected in 2007, several radio observatories on Earth — including the famous Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Parkes Observatory in Australia — have serendipitously detected only a couple of dozen events. And they are powerful; in a fraction of a second, they erupt with as much energy as our sun pumps out in 10,000 years. These are lucky detections as they only occur when the radio dishes just happen to be pointing at the right place at the right time. Astronomers predict there could be thousands of FRB events across the entire sky every single day. There seems to be no pattern, they appear to originate from distant galaxies billions of light-years away and they have no known progenitor.

So far, FRBs have been mainly identified from looking back through historic radio data, but now, the Parkes Observatory has a real-time FRB detection system that will alert astronomers of their detection, allowing rapid follow-up investigations of source regions. This system resulted in a breakthrough last year when astronomers were able to work out that one FRB originated in an old elliptical galaxy some six billion light-years away. This single event helped researchers narrow down FRB sources — as the galaxy is old and exhibits little star formation processes, some production mechanisms could be ruled out (or at least determined to be less likely).

“This is not what we expected,” said Simon Johnston, Head of Astrophysics at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) which manages Parkes, at the time. “It might mean that the FRB resulted from, say, two neutron stars colliding rather than anything to do with recent star birth.”

But say if the source is a little more, well, alien; why would extraterrestrial intelligence(s) be blasting this incredibly powerful radiation into space in the first place?

In their research to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Loeb and co-investigator Manasvi Lingam of Harvard University looked at a form of beamed energy that could be used to propel interstellar probes to the stars. Vast planet-sized solar receivers could collect the required energy and the power collected could be transferred into a laser-like device that is bigger than we can currently imagine. Although the technology required to create such a device is in the realms of science-fiction, according to the researchers’ work, it’s not beyond the realms of physics.

This hypothetical mega-laser could then be used to blast a huge solarsail-like spacecraft across interstellar — perhaps even intergalactic — distances. The photon pressure exerted by this kind of propulsion technique could accelerate spacecraft of a million tons to relativistic speeds. The engineering details of such a device are only known to these advanced hypothetical aliens, however.

Like this… kinda. (Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

This form of beamed energy would need to be continuously aimed at the departing spacecraft, like a dandelion seed being constantly blown through the air by a steady breeze, to help it accelerate sufficiently to its desired destination — so why would such a technology manifest itself on Earth as a mere radio flash in the sky? Well, to keep the beamed energy on target (i.e. centered on the spacecraft’s sail), it will remain fixed on the spacecraft. But the spacecraft, planet and star will all be moving relative to us, sweeping the beam across the sky, so the beam will only briefly appear in our skies and then disappear as a random FRB. Even if there’s a permanent “beamed energy station” continuously firing spacecraft into deep space, we may only ever see one flash from that location — space is a big place, we’d need to lie directly in the firing line (over millions to billions of light-years away) for us to even glimpse it.

And if these FRBs are originating all over the sky, from many different stars in many different galaxies, it could mean that this beamed propulsion technology is a natural progression for sufficiently advanced civilizations. We could be in the middle of a vast intergalactic transportation network that we can only join when we are sufficiently advanced ourselves to build our own beamed energy station — like an intergalactic bus stop. Mind-bending stuff, right?

Alternatively, FRBs could just be a natural phenomena that our current understanding of the universe cannot explain, but it’s good to investigate all avenues, scientifically.

“Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” concludes Loeb.

And you know what? I couldn’t agree more.